Ukraine, Russia reach agreement on evacuation of civilians in Belarus talks

The sides agreed on a "possible temporary" ceasefire to facilitate the evacuations, the Ukrainian negotiator said. 

 Ukrainian and Russian flags are seen on a table before the talks between officials of the two countries in the Brest region, Belarus March 3, 2022 (photo credit: VIA REUTERS)
Ukrainian and Russian flags are seen on a table before the talks between officials of the two countries in the Brest region, Belarus March 3, 2022
(photo credit: VIA REUTERS)

Ukraine and Russia reached an understanding for a "humanitarian corridor" for the evacuation of civilians from the war-torn country, Ukraine said on Thursday following talks in Belarus.

The understanding involves a "possible temporary" ceasefire to facilitate the evacuations, the Ukrainian negotiator said. 

The two parties have agreed to hold a third round of talks "as soon as possible," Mykhailo Podoliak, an advisor to the Ukrainian president, said.

Earlier, president Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia's military operations in Ukraine were going according to plan and praised its soldiers as heroes.

In televised comments, Putin made a series of allegations against Ukrainian forces for which he did not provide evidence, including that they were holding foreign citizens hostage and using human shields.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday said Ukraine and Russia could find a way out of the war if the Kremlin treated Ukraine on an equal footing and came to talks with a will to negotiate in good faith.

"There are things in which some compromises must be found so that people do not die, but there are things in which there are no compromises," Zelensky said in a televised interview, saying he was willing to have an open conversation with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

 A woman and a child wait in a bus after fleeing from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the border crossing in Siret, Romania, March 1, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/STOYAN NENOV) A woman and a child wait in a bus after fleeing from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the border crossing in Siret, Romania, March 1, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/STOYAN NENOV)
 

Military, humanitarian aid continues to flow into Ukraine

Germany

Germany is considering supplying 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine as it seeks to defend itself, a government source said on Thursday. German news agency DPA reported earlier that the German economy ministry approved supplying the Soviet-made Strela missiles, part of the inventories of the former German Democratic Republic's army.

A source told Reuters that the Federal Security Council had yet to approve the move. "The missiles are ready to be transported," the source said.

That would come on top of 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles that Berlin said on Saturday it would supply to the embattled country, in a shift of policy after Russia invaded its southwestern neighbor.

South Korea

South Korea approved $10 million in emergency humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, for the Ukrainian people and refugees, President Moon Jae-in said on Thursday.

In a phone call with Moon, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for all available support for overcoming the crisis and defending Ukraine, Moon's office, the Blue House, said in a statement.

United States of America

US President Joe Biden's administration is seeking $32.5 billion in additional funding from Congress to aid Ukraine and bolster the US COVID response, US media reports said on Thursday.

The White House is seeking $10 billion to help train Ukraine's military, protect its electrical grid, boost its cyberdefenses and enforce sanctions, The Washington Post reported, citing two people familiar with the matter.

Another $22.5 billion would go toward shoring up the nation's pandemic response as part of its shift toward managing COVID-19 long-term and preparing for any potential new variants and spikes in cases, the Post said, also citing a letter from the US Office of Management and Budget sent to US lawmakers it had obtained.

The White House will officially ask Congress for the emergency funding later on Thursday, the office said. The Punchbowl News media outlet also reported on the planned funding request.

The United Arab Emirates announced on Thursday that Ukrainian citizens would be able to enter the country without needing a visa; those who arrived before March 3 will be able to stay for a year.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Thursday he had a phone call with US State Secretary Antony Blinken to coordinate further strengthening of Ukraine's air defense capabilities and imposing new sanctions on Russia due to its aggression.

"Russia must cease hostilities to allow opening of humanitarian corridors," Kuleba said in a tweet.

ICC begins work on war crimes probe

An advance team left the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the Ukraine region on Thursday to start investigating possible war crimes, its top prosecutor told Reuters in an interview.

Their departure comes hours after Prosecutor Karim Khan announced he would start collecting evidence as part of a formal investigation launched after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Read full story

"Yesterday I formulated a team and today they are moving to the region," Khan said.

The prosecutor said his office would be examining possible war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by all parties in the conflict.

While Ukraine is not a member of the ICC, it signed a declaration in 2014 giving the court jurisdiction over alleged grave crimes committed on its territory from then onward regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators. Russia does not recognize the court.

Sanctions continue to hit Moscow

The Russian rouble slid further on Thursday, hitting record lows against the dollar and euro, after ratings agencies Fitch and Moody's downgraded Russia's sovereign debt to "junk" status citing the impact of Western sanctions.

At 08:30 GMT, the rouble was more than 10% weaker against the dollar at 117.5 and had lost over 7% against the euro to trade at 124.1 EURRUBTN=MCX on the Moscow Exchange, marking the first time it has traded above 110 to the dollar in Moscow.

Sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine would gradually hit Moscow's income from oil, despite not targeting Russian oil and gas exports directly, the EU's energy policy chief said on Thursday.

The 27-country union has imposed several packages of sanctions on Moscow, including a ban on the export of specific refining technologies to Russia from Europe, making it harder and more expensive for the invading country to modernize its oil refineries.

Russia's sales of oil and gas accounted for 36% of the country's total budget last year, far exceeding initial forecasts as a result of skyrocketing prices.

The EU sanctions do not directly target Russia's oil and gas exports. Doing that would deprive Moscow of a significant chunk of its revenue, but also deal a major economic hit to Europe and could push up already high gas prices.

Europe imports 90% of its gas, with some 40% of it coming from Russia.

Britain has tolerated the investment of Russian kleptocrats in its soccer clubs for too long, British sports and culture minister Nadine Dorries told parliament on Thursday.

She said the decision by Russian businessman Roman Abramovich to sell Chelsea Football Club was a "turning point" and that the government would bring forward new tests on potential club owners.

Britain will ban Russian companies from the multi-billion dollar aviation and space insurance market in London, the world's largest commercial and speciality insurance center, the finance ministry said on Thursday.

Russian companies in the aviation or space industry will be blocked from accessing British-based insurance or reinsurance services directly or indirectly, the ministry said.

The move will leave Russian commercial airlines scrambling to get coverage elsewhere. Industry sources say this could include from Chinese reinsurers, while other Western insurers are likely to hold back from the business, fearful of other countries imposing similar restrictions.

Aviation is one of the largest sectors at Lloyd's insurance and reinsurance market, along with marine and energy insurance.

Marine, aviation and transport at Lloyd's reported gross written premiums of £3 billion ($4 b.) in insurance and £1.5 b. ($2 b.) in reinsurance in 2020.

Hungary will not veto European Union sanctions against Russia, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said, adding that the unity of the 27-member bloc is paramount given the war in Ukraine, which Budapest condemns unequivocally. 

Orban, who has been strongly criticized by the Hungarian opposition for his friendly ties with Russia, flagged what he called an adjustment in relations because of the war, though adding that it should not have an impact on energy deals.

This week, Hungary joined an initiative by eight EU leaders to start membership talks with neighboring Ukraine, but the NATO-member has rejected the transport of lethal weapons through its territory to its eastern neighbor.

"With regard to sanctions, we will not veto them. We will not block the EU from imposing sanctions on Russia. Now the unity of the EU is paramount," the nationalist Orban told the news website mandiner.hu in an interview published on Thursday.

Hungary's ties with Russia had been "balanced and fair" until the very recent past, but this had changed, he said.

"The start of the war has created a new situation for Hungary too," the prime minister said. "We need to adjust Hungary's objectives and the Hungarian interests in this new situation."

Orban added, however, that there was no reason to cut energy ties with Russia, including a 12.5 billion euro ($13.87 b.) deal for Russian Rosatom to expand Hungary's Paks nuclear power plant, which accounts for about half of its electricity output.

"EU leaders have also declared that the sanctions cannot affect energy shipments from Russia, because that would wreck the European economy," he said.

Hungary signed a new, long-term gas import agreement with Russia last year to import 4.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year on routes avoiding Ukraine.

The White House on Thursday announced new sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs and their companies, as well as President Vladimir Putin's spokesman. The United States is also imposing visa restrictions on 19 Russian oligarchs and their families and associates, it said.

Russian FM claims West "hatching plans" for nuclear war

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that the West was "hatching" plans for a nuclear war, as Russian forces continued to bombard Ukrainian cities on the eighth day of their invasion.

"Everyone understands that the Third World War can only be nuclear. But I draw your attention to the fact that it is in the head of Western politicians that a nuclear war is constantly spinning, and not in the head of Russians," said Lavrov, according to TASS.

The Russian foreign minister stressed that Moscow would not allow what he called a provocation to make it lose its balance, but warned that "those who hatch such plans" should think about what would happen if a "real war" is unleashed against Russia.

Lavrov claimed that the West was using talk of a nuclear war to "continue Russophobia."

He stressed that Russia has a military doctrine that does not include an "escalation for the sake of de-escalation."

The Russian foreign minister added that Moscow would complete the demilitarization of Ukraine, even if peace agreements are reached, according to TASS. "Demilitarization in this sense – in the sense of destroying the weapons infrastructure that threatens us – it will be completed; even if we sign a peace agreement, it will definitely have to include such a clause."

He added that Russia would demand that Ukraine not join NATO.

Lavrov also repeated claims of "Nazism" in Ukraine, saying that it targeted not only Russians, but also Jews. He pointed to aggressive statements and torch marches as examples of what he called the "many, many simply physical crimes" against Russians and Jews.

Russia sent letters to Finland and Sweden demanding that they provide security guarantees, according to the Echo of Moscow radio station, with the Nordic countries expressed interest in joining NATO as Russia's invasion of Ukraine entered its eighth day.

The liberal aligned radio station was taken off the air by Russian authorities on Tuesday. Its board of directors decided to dissolve the station and its website on Thursday morning.

The Russian demands come after surveys in both Finland and Sweden showed rising public support for joining NATO and two citizens' initiatives calling on the Finnish government to either hold a referendum on the matter or join the alliance without a referendum reached the number of signatures needed to require parliament to discuss them.

The latest initiative stated that Finland must join NATO in order to fulfill its constitutional obligation to safeguard human rights.

Four Russian fighter jets violated Swedish airspace on Wednesday, with Sweden's Air Force commander calling the act "unprofessional and irresponsible."

On Friday, Russia warned neighboring Finland of "serious military and political" repercussions if the Scandinavian nation opts to join NATO following the invasion of Ukraine.